The Boston Bar Association extends its gratitude to the House and Senate, notably Speaker Robert DeLeo, Senate President Harriette Chandler, House Ways and Means Chair Jeffrey Sánchez, and Senate Ways and Means Chair Karen Spilka, for their recognition of the importance of key BBA budget priorities.
“We are grateful to the Legislature for their strong show of support for access to justice and the fair administration of justice through funding for the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC), the statewide expansion of the Housing Court, the overall operations of the Trial Court Department, the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS), and community-based residential re-entry services,” said BBA President Mark D. Smith.
The BBA is very pleased that the Legislature has offered an increase of roughly $3 million in funding for MLAC, the largest funder of legal services organizations in the Commonwealth, for a total appropriation of just over $21 million. Thankfully, the BBA has had the chance to repeatedly commend the Legislature for their strong support for civil legal aid since the release of the BBA’s 2014 report Investing in Justice, which revealed the great need for civil legal aid and demonstrated that funding for legal services more than pays for itself in cost-savings and benefits accrued. Nevertheless, the demand for legal assistance continues to rise and the turn-away rate for eligible individuals remains near two-thirds. As such, we will continue to advocate for further, needed increases in state funding for MLAC until access to justice for all is truly achieved in the Commonwealth.
A key step toward extending access to justice to all was achieved last year, when the Legislature and the Governor included funding for statewide expansion of the Housing Court, which is already making a positive difference in the lives of many residents who were previously not served by a Housing Court. Now, all residents have access to its many benefits, including judges who specialize in this complex area of the law and housing specialists who are trained to successfully resolve these cases and avoid the need – and expense – of litigating in open court. The Legislature took another step toward ensuring the successful expansion of this court by providing full funding, in the amount of $2.6 million for the expansion, and $1.3 million for the Tenancy Preservation Program, which prevents homelessness by offering support services for individuals with disabilities.
Of course, the Housing Court is just one piece of our judiciary, and as lawyers we appreciate the necessity of adequate funding for the Trial Court, which serves as the main point of contact for most Massachusetts residents with a legal issue. We at the BBA are happy that the Legislature has also recognized this, providing the resources necessary for the court system to continue to operate at a high level. The Trial Court has already made great strides in finding ways to work smarter and leverage advancements to get more done, with less, and we look forward to their continued improvements in the court user experience.
Just as the Trial Court is necessary to the fair administration of justice, so is CPCS, the entity responsible for fulling the constitutional obligation of legal representation for indigent persons in criminal, civil, and administrative proceedings. The BBA is proud to continue our support for adequate funding for CPCS, and we are grateful that the Legislature has signaled its shared support this year in its FY19 appropriations. Although not included in the final budget, the BBA will continue to advocate for raising the billable hours cap for private assigned counsel from 1,650 to 2,000 hours.
We continue to be appreciative to the Governor and Legislature for the historic criminal justice reforms enacted earlier this year. For these efforts to be successful, however, we must invest in the necessary resources to ensure lasting reductions in recidivism, as urged in our own 2017 criminal justice report No Time to Wait. Thankfully, the Legislature continued to show its commitment to that cause by appropriating $5 million in grants directed toward community-based residential re-entry programs, to help support individuals’ return to society after incarceration. We expect that such funding will demonstrate its value and hope that the program, and similar initiatives to reduce recidivism, will be expanded in future years.
The BBA urges Governor Charlie Baker to sign off on all of these elements of the FY19 state budget.